In my bid to discover more foreign poetry, I came across a poem that blends my love of poetry with history. But it’s also “foreign” in more than one way.
First, in the obvious way, in that the poem is from Zimbabwean poet, Tariro Ndoro, who has a WordPress blog here. Her biography is important to understanding the poem, so I’ll get to that in a moment. If you’re not familiar, Zimbabwe is a country in Africa, and an Indian Ocean hop away from Madagascar, and about a 90-minute flight to South Africa.
Second, this one comes with a lovely reading by Ndoro herself, and if I’m understanding this correctly, it’s filmed by Rumbi Katedza, also a Zimbabwean, who is a film producer and director, and someone who has advocated for film in her country and to her government. There’s something about actually hearing poetry that lends itself to more appreciation, particularly it seems with prose poetry. Prose poetry feels like it’s more spoken word poetry than verse poetry. I could be wrong about all of this. As usual, I’m writing off the cuff, but that’s my intuitive feeling having read and listened to this prose poem. But more than that, the poem feels more complete in Ndoro’s own words? I don’t know if the poem was written originally in a different language, such as Shona, the predominant language in Zimbabwe, and then translated into English, or what have you, but Ndoro’s rendition of the poem has slightly altered text and the addition of a few words that help the flow of the poem. So I think it’s worth listening to her read the poem as you also read the poem.
Let’s get to it, shall we? The poem, found here, is from Ndoro’s 2017 poetry collection, New Coin, and it’s entitled, “Four Reads.” It’s rather long, so I’m not going to do what I normally would do and replicate it in full, but here’s an excerpt:
The river of blue tar that transmuted
From hushed electric gates
And avenues of neat green lawns
Into a lesser tributary flanked by dust and garbage
On one side of it: the Grahamstown station
Where Muslim immigrants took refuge once,
When the city turned them out, bayed for their entrails
That juxtaposition of city life — between the well-to-do parts of a city and the less-than parts of the city — is something that always fascinates me, and it’s written about beautifully here, from the “hushed electric gates … into a lesser tributary flanked by dust and garbage.” Gorgeous, if searing, juxtaposition.
To further help wrap your mind around the poem, Ndoro went to university at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, which is now known as Makhanda, in South Africa. Grahamstown was named after Colonel John Graham with the British Army. He led a reign of terror in the early 1800s to clear out 20,000 Xhosa people, which included the “indiscriminate shooting of women and other civilians.”
Perhaps that’s why Ndoro said she has difficulty with the clicks consonants of the Xhosa language, and “never quite learned to swallow.” In other words, to have the language of the Xhosa people spoken in this city named after the man who terrorized and killed those very people … it’s another haunting juxtaposition.
And it’s perhaps the reason Ndoro feels so alienated in the town, never quite comfortable in a town she ought to be comfortable in. Yet, as she says, she cannot erase it from her being. Even if you are not about it, it is about you, inexorably.
Overall, as a history geek, albeit, a novice (and that’s putting it charitably) when it comes to South African history, I found the illumination of that history with the biting juxtapositions well-done here. I love poetry and I love history, and I am a sucker if you combine the two.
Also, one last addendum I want to make after I just came across it. Out of curiosity, as I almost always do, I Googled the name meaning for Tariro and in Shona, it means “hope.” I found that another sweet wrinkle to add to my reading and interpretation of this poem. That, while hard to swallow, there’s also something beautiful, hopeful and triumphant, that 200 years after a foreign occupier terrorized and killed the Xhosa people, the Xhosa language still clicks and crackles through the air of a placed name after the occupier.
What do you make of this poem?